With a meat thermometer, you have an element of control over the safety of the meat you are going to serve and when it is just right.
Without one, you run the risk of either overcooking meat or serving it at a temperature that may be a risk to your guests. With pulled pork, you want to hit certain temperatures to render the fat and break down the fibers.
In this guide, we will look at where pulled pork originates from, the cooking process, and the temperatures it should hit.
The Area Where Pulled Pork Originates From
Pulled pork should come from the pork shoulder yet you can be more specific than that. The ideal part of the pork shoulder for pulled pork is the pork butt, also known as the Boston butt.
Yes, the appearance may be off-putting with so much fat and connective tissue but once all that is rendered down it is well worth the effort.
At this part of the pork shoulder, you should expect a dark pink color so it may seem like it undergoes a huge transformation before becoming pulled pork.
It largely does but that is all part of the process. Once the pork butt has been cooked at a low enough temperature for long enough it should look delicious, even if that will take hours.
While you may be put off by the appearance of your cut of meat, this area of pork shoulder is known for being fatty and you should leave that fat on.
Do not be tempted to trim it as the fat will be the meat’s natural basting liquid and is supposed to remain exactly where it is if you want it moist and tender.
You can still expect a few chunky bits of fat yet the vast majority of it will have rendered during the low and slow cooking process.
Choosing a cut of meat from this area of pork shoulder also means that it should be quite inexpensive. This should be expected due to all the fat so you should get a lot back for your buck.
How To Make Pulled Pork And The Cooking Process
There is a certain way that you can create pulled pork so that it turns out soft and tender as opposed to chewy and tough.
This may seem like magic, certainly when you begin with such a tough, fatty piece of pork, yet give it a few hours and you may be surprised with the results. This is especially true with low and slow cooking.
Before you even begin the cooking process, you should prepare your pork butt.
That will start the day before and means trimming away some of the excess fat, but not all of it, only the large chunks that will struggle to render fully.
Find your favorite barbecue meat rub and smother it all over the pork butt then leave overnight.
If you have not got all those hours to spare then you can simply allow the pork butt to rest on your countertop to come up to room temperature. This may only take half an hour but remains good practice.
Get The Grill/Smoker Ready
Once you have completed your preparation, it is time to get cooking and preheat the grill or smoker. Whichever you decide to use, you want to hit a maximum of 225°F.
On a gas grill that should mean setting it to medium-low. With a pellet grill that can just mean setting it to 225°F or beginning to build a low charcoal fire if you are using more traditional means.
If there was one method to recommend, it would likely be a pellet grill to infuse the pulled pork with a delectable smoky flavor.
Should you use a charcoal fire, you can include a few wood chips for a similar effect. That may prove a little more difficult on a gas grill yet you can still include wood chips via a foil pouch.
Placing Your Pork Butt
With the grill or smoker getting hot and ready, you can place your pork butt on the grilling rack and ensure it is fat side up. For efficient cooking, close the grill lid then let the pork cook for around two hours each pound.
Hopefully, you weighed the pork butt beforehand so you can estimate how long it should take before it is ready, including the time to cook and the crucial resting time.
Finding the right placement is crucial to ensure you can probe the pork butt with your meat thermometer properly as you want to insert it in the thickest portion for a reliable readout of the internal temperature.
Go Low And Slow
The thought process behind low and slow cooking with a cut of meat like pork butt is to deal with the collagen.
This is the substance that can make a piece of meat seem tough but can be broken down into gelatin given time at a relatively low temperature.
Once the collagen has broken down, you should be able to enjoy meat that has a rich flavor with a texture that you simply cannot match with any leaner cuts.
How The Meat Breaks Down
At different temperatures, you can see how the meat changes and effectively breaks down.
Beginning with 105°F, this is when a range of enzymes starts the denaturing process and protein strands in the meat begin to break down.
At 120°F, you should see the pork butt turning opaque, though in red meat this is when it starts to go pink. That’s right, if you have had an exceedingly rare steak, chances are it was taken from the grill at that same 120°F mark.
The Color Changes
The temperature is only going to go up and you should begin to note even more color changes. At 140°F, your pork butt will shift from a pink color to brown with a hint of gray.
This is a crucial temperature to hit as past this point you can expect meat to release a relatively large amount of its juice then start to shrink down.
In a steak, you can expect to lose a vast amount of juice once you pass this stage as it has proceeded beyond medium-rare.
Killing Off Microorganisms
Another crucial temperature to reach is 145°F. Yes, it is only five degrees more, yet at this mark, you can state that pork is safe to eat.
Not that you should dive in at this stage because it is way too soon. There is still more cooking to go to get it just right yet the pork is certainly safe to serve which is a relief.
From Collagen To Gelatin
At 160°F, collagen transforms into gelatin so you can now expect plenty of delicious soft meat that is only going to get more tender.
Between 160 and 180°F, collagen starts to melt rapidly, the muscle fibers in the pork butt start to loosen giving the gelatin more room to go into.
To pitmasters, at 160°F you may hit what is known as ‘the stall’ where it seems that the temperature fails to move for hours. Do not worry as this is expected to happen and you can wait it out.
The Texas Crutch
For those who want to try to kick-start the cooking, there are alternative means, and one is known as the ‘Texas crutch’.
This can effectively remove a few hours off your cooking time yet does mean a bit of extra work.
You will have to remove the pork butt away from the grill at the 160°F mark and then use some aluminum foil to tightly wrap it then return it to the grill.
The drawback to using the ‘Texas crutch’ is that the meat’s exterior can soften which is a simple reason for many grillers to steer clear.
Many prefer a reassuringly crispy bark so are well prepared to wait out the time.
If you want to try the ‘Texas crutch’ and still have a crispy bark then you can remove the foil around half an hour before the end of the cooking time just to try to crisp it up though this does not always work.
Almost Serving Time
While you could serve pork at this point, or even earlier at the 145°F mark, there is still a bit more time to go before it is ready to serve.
You should give as much time as you can to get the pork butt just right and to give the fat an even better chance of fully rendering out.
This will make your job of shredding it into pulled pork even easier as it should be softer.
Only when your pork butt has reached an internal temperature of at least 195°F should you consider removing it from the cooker.
Even then, the temperature should rise even more to around 200°F as the pork butt rests for at least half an hour or even up to two hours which is crucial to the overall process.
At 200°F and beyond, you can expect the pork butt to simply fall apart when prodded.
While you can certainly remove your pork butt at 195°F, you could get it even softer by letting it continue on the grill until you have an internal temperature of between 202 and 205°F.
That is likely the maximum temperature you should allow the pork butt to get to as any higher and you do run the risk of overcooking it.
Then you would get a dry and disappointing piece of meat which is the last thing you need after spending so much time on it.
You should aim for an internal temperature of around 195°F when cooking a pork butt. This should make it tender enough for shredding and create delicious pulled pork.
However, you can go to even higher temperatures, such as 200 to 205°F, which will soften the pork up more.
Once you get to shredding, you will find that the meat pulls apart really easily.
Though you should be prepared to let the pork hit a higher temperature, it can prove difficult to stop it overcooking so keep an eye on the temperature and remove it from the grill in good time.
Frequently Asked Questions
How To Shred Pulled Pork
You could use the hands-on approach with pulled pork and simply shred it with your fingers. This is ideal to fish out any chunky pieces of fat or gristle before serving yet can take some time.
Most grillers simply use a pair of forks with the prongs facing outwards from each other. If you are going to prepare pulled pork quite often, decide on a decent pair of shredding claws.
What Temperature Should I Look For In Pulled Pork?
A lot of reasoning would suggest that 195°F is the ideal temperature for pulled pork as it can be easier to reach than other temperatures. However, for just a few more degrees you can enjoy even softer pulled pork.
If you wait until the internal temperature hits 202°F then shredding becomes easier and the meat should still have its moisture.